Notes From the Margins…

Rogue Soldiers

  • March 20, 2012
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Western politicians often insist that the various wars carried out under the broad rubric of the ‘war on terror’ have been fought not to advance geostrategic objectives but to defend and advance western ‘values’.

Tony Blair, the consummate snake oil salesman,  was particularly prone to such rhetorical flourishes.   In his 2004 Sedgefield speech justifying the war in Iraq, Blair argued that “the best defence of our security lies in the defence of our values” and insisted that “we should do all we can to spread the values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, religious tolerance and justice for the oppressed, however painful for some nations that may be.” 

In his 2009 speech announcing the deployment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Barack Obama similarly invoked “the strength of our values” and promised that America would “tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples.”

Throughout the last decade there has been a persistent disparity between these lofty declarations of principle and the brutish reality of the wars that have been fought in their name – a disparity which politicians and the military have generally been reluctant to acknowledge.  For the most part this discrepancy is simply ignored or passed over in silence.  But from time to time the gulf between what politicians say about these wars and the behaviour of the soldiers who fight them is so glaring that governments are forced to explain the contradiction between rhetoric and reality.

One of those moments during the Panjwai massacre of Afghan civilians on March 11.   Hardly had the blood dried on the sixteen victims than the US military began the familiar narrative that invariably follows such episodes.    According to initial reports, the killings were carried out by a deranged ‘rogue’ soldier, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who was variously described as suffering from a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from four combat tours.

The Pentagon has been sticking to this narrative even though an Afghan parliamentary investigation has found that the killings were carried out by two groups of up to 20 US soldiers.   Whatever the truth, and whatever Bale’s  personal circumstances and motivations, the massacre is clearly not an aberration or an anomaly.

In March last year, Rolling Stone  magazine revealed that a self-styled ‘kill team’ from the Stryker Brigade murdered Afghan civilians and collected trophies of these killings such as fingers of their victims.   In January a video showed US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses – a video that the Pentagon insisted did not reflect the ‘core values’ of the Marine Corps.

In Iraq, there were numerous glimpses of routine thuggery that was radically at odds with the way the war was represented by politicians, whether it was the Abu Ghraib “porno-interrogations”, the Haditha massacre, the video of the US soldier who threw a puppy off a cliff,  the helicopter crew in the leaked Wikileaks video who joke about the unarmed civilians they have just killed, or the video of British troops beating Iraqi kids after a demonstration.

Rather than anomalous aberrations, incidents like this suggest a pattern of brutality and brutalisation that was once intrinsic to the wars and occupations of the colonial era.  In Algeria, French conscripts raped, cut throats and disembowelled pregnant women and some of them even wrote memoirs about it.   In Kenya,   British soldiers and settler paramilitaries compiled scorecards of killed Mau Mau and killed and tortured with impunity.

During the 1898-1913 war and insurgency in the Philippines, American occupying troops burned Filipino villages, killed prisoners and practiced an early version of ‘waterboarding’ known as the ‘water cure’  in a war that President McKinley argued was intended to ‘educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.’

In Vietnam, American soldiers frequently behaved in ways that bore little resemblance to the ‘hearts and minds’ rhetoric emanating from their commanding officers. In his memoir Powderburns, the former DEA agent Celerino Castillo III describes routine rape and killings of civilians carried out in the course of rural ‘pacification’ operations, of which the 1968 My Lai massacre was only the most notorious example.

Such atrocities are often facilitated by the racist dehumanisation of the enemy as ‘savages’, ‘gooks’, ‘ragheads’ or ‘hajis’ and they do not sit easily with the oxymoronic fantasy of humanitarian warfare or the assumption of moral and cultural superiority that underpins so many of our ‘interventions’ of recent years.

Implicit in these wars is the notion that more backward countries, or ‘rogue states’ that have regressed into backwardness, must be lifted up to a higher level through force of arms, however painful for some nations that may be, as the great exponent of ‘liberal interventionism’ once aptly remarked.     We want to save women from oppression, promote democracy and liberal governance, and bring wild and lawless countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan back into the fold of civilisation.

And it follows that if our wars are humanitarian and our values are superior to those of our enemies, then our soldiers must behave accordingly.  So we don’t like to hear that ‘our finest men and women’ are out there killing civilians or combatants with casual insouciance, or collecting fingers, sodomising teenagers or playing porno-games with the naked bodies of the natives.

Such behaviour not only undermines our attempts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the natives; it also calls our values into question, or at the very least suggests a disturbing absence of such values amongst the soldiers that supposedly represent them.   And therefore it is essential to present those responsible for such events as deviant ‘rogue’ soldiers and  “ bad apples” suffering from some kind of pathological disorder or stress-related mental breakdown.

In this way politicians can continue to tell themselves and their populations how noble and virtuous they are, and maintain a fiction of moral superiority to justify wars that are as cruel, brutal and morally squalid as the civilising missions of another era.

Featured Image: Twana Atkinson.  Wikimedia Commons

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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